On the reduced sensitivity of the Atlantic overturning to Greenland ice sheet melting in projections: a multi-model assessment

Swingedouw, Didier; Rodehacke, Christian B.; Olsen, Steffen M.; Menary, Matthew; Gao, Yongqi; Mikolajewicz, Uwe; Mignot, Juliette (2015). On the reduced sensitivity of the Atlantic overturning to Greenland ice sheet melting in projections: a multi-model assessment. Climate dynamics, 44(11-12), pp. 3261-3279. Springer 10.1007/s00382-014-2270-x

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Large uncertainties exist concerning the impact of Greenland ice sheet melting on the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) in the future, partly due to different sensitivity of the AMOC to freshwater input in the North Atlantic among climate models. Here we analyse five projections from different coupled ocean–atmosphere models with an additional 0.1 Sv (1 Sv = 10 6 m3/s) of freshwater released around Greenland between 2050 and 2089. We find on average a further weakening of the AMOC at 26°N of 1.1 ± 0.6 Sv representing a 27 ± 14% supplementary weakening in 2080–2089, as compared to the weakening relative to 2006–2015 due to the effect of the external forcing only. This weakening is lower than what has been found with the same ensemble of models in an identical experimen - tal set-up but under recent historical climate conditions. This lower sensitivity in a warmer world is explained by two main factors. First, a tendency of decoupling is detected between the surface and the deep ocean caused by an increased thermal stratification in the North Atlantic under the effect of global warming. This induces a shoaling of ocean deep ventilation through convection hence ventilating only intermediate levels. The second important effect concerns the so-called Canary Current freshwater leakage; a process by which additionally released fresh water in the North Atlantic leaks along the Canary Current and escapes the convection zones towards the subtropical area. This leakage is increasing in a warming climate, which is a consequence of decreasing gyres asymmetry due to changes in Ekman rumping. We suggest that these modifications are related with the northward shift of the jet stream in a warmer world. For these two reasons the AMOC is less susceptible to freshwater perturbations (near the deep water formation sides) in the North Atlantic as compared to the recent historical climate conditions. Finally, we propose a bilinear model that accounts for the two former processes to give a conceptual explanation about the decreasing AMOC sensitivity due to freshwater input. Within the limit of this bilinear model, we find that 62 ± 8% of the reduction in sensitivity is related with the changes in gyre asymmetry and freshwater leakage and 38 ± 8% is due to the reduction in deep ocean ventilation associated with the increased stratification in the North Atlantic.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Physics Institute > Climate and Environmental Physics
10 Strategic Research Centers > Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research (OCCR)

UniBE Contributor:

Mignot, Juliette


500 Science > 530 Physics








Monika Wälti-Stampfli

Date Deposited:

24 Jul 2015 10:03

Last Modified:

19 Oct 2015 09:56

Publisher DOI:






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